Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part One

Boards of Canada is a Scottish instrumental electronica duo comprised of two brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin. They arrived on the scene in 1995 with the EP Twoism, a blend of downtempo trip-hop with a notable ambient edge that was self-released via cassette. Their debut album, Music Has the Right to Children (1998), furthered their sound with stronger IDM, electronica and psychedelic rock influences.

At the heart of Boards of Canada’s sound is a focus on texture, atmosphere, and nostalgia. Their music often features warm, analog synths and heavily processed samples that create a dreamy, nostalgic vibe, all with a degraded, lo-fi sound quality that adds to that sense of nostalgia. They also use guitars and trip-hop style drum beats for a diverse sound that is still instantly recognizable.

Although much attention is given to their synth sounds and lo-fi production methods, Boards of Canada’s songwriting and composition style is equally noteworthy. The duo’s approach to crafting chord sequences and melodies is unique, and is a major contributing factor to their distinct sound, whether it’s one of their wistful, nostalgic songs or their dark, broodier ones. For this article I’ve shared my transcriptions of 11 Boards of Canada songs that showcase their use of ‘fifths chords’. 

This article can be viewed with either accompanying music notation or MIDI piano roll diagrams.

MIDI
boc theory

The Perfect Fifth // Pete Standing Alone

Let’s start by listening to the chord progression in Pete Standing Alone, from Music Has the Right to Children. The song starts with a heavily processed synth playing the chords in isolation before being joined by a drum beat, then samples and further layers of synths. There are four chords in the Pete Standing Alone progression, and they’re all two-note chords (technically called dyads) with the high note seven semitones above the lower note. 

This interval of seven semitones is a useful one, and because it’s the fifth note in the major scale, it’s also called a perfect fifth. Guitarists will know this interval as the ubiquitous power chord. Here’s what the Pete Standing Alone progression sounds like:

00:00
  • Pete Standing There Short 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Note that the original recording is approx. 50 cents sharper than concert tuning.

These chords are B♭5 | G5 | D5 | F5; the ‘5’ symbol denotes that each chord is a fifth interval chord. Unlike traditional three-note chords, which are comprised of the root, third and fifth, these fifth interval chords don’t have a third interval, which means that they are neither major nor minor. Instead they have an ambiguous sound with less emotional pull than regular major/minor chords. For comparison, the audio clip below shows what Pete Standing Alone would sound like played with traditional three-note chords; to my ears it’s more generic and doesn’t have that ambiguous ‘Boards of Canada sound’.

00:00
  • Pete Standing There Triads 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Another interesting Boards of Canada technique is their use of odd-length phrases. Pete Standing Alone is based on a four-bar progression that is played three times:

  • The first time, it’s followed by a two-bar gap, resulting in a 6-bar phrase.
  • The second time, it’s followed by a one-bar gap, for a 5-bar phrase.
  • For the third repeat, the first chord is omitted and it’s followed by a two-bar gap, for a 5-bar phrase.

The end result is a 16-bar phrase, but one that is unevenly divided between three slightly different phrases (6 + 5 + 5). This results in a sequence that doesn’t have an obvious loop, which helps lift their music out of the predictable ‘four-bar loop’ territory and into more free, loose patterns. These odd phrases have an additional layer of complexity when played over a 4-bar drum loop.

00:00
  • Pete Standing There Full 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Telepath

Telepath, from 2013’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, is another example of Boards of Canada composing entirely with fifth intervals. It’s a free-time ambient track featuring a descending chord sequence played over a droning bass with some strange radio chatter samples playing overhead. Just like the previous example, the chords are all fifths chords, with the full progression being B5 | G5 | E5 | C5 | A5.

00:00
  • Telepath Chords Only 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is a semitone lower than transcribed, in the key of F# major.

Fifth chords are versatile because they can fit over several different bass notes. In Telepath, the five chords are played over a single droning A note. The chord progression ends on an A5 chord, which matches the bass note and brings the chord progression to a sense of closure, but the other chords don’t match the bass note at all, and they have an uneasy sound because of it.

00:00
  • Telepath Full 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Energy Warning

Boards of Canada have an eclectic musical output; they’re equally at home using ambient synths pad as they are samples, guitars and sequenced analog synths. Energy Warning from 2002’s Geodaddi shows the melodic-riff side of Boards of Canada. It’s a short interlude-style track solely featuring a repeated melodic pattern. The sequence is composed entirely in fifths, and sounds like this:

00:00
  • Energy Warning 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is approx. 40 cents flatter that concert tuning. 

Rather than being played or sequence in fifths like above, it was likely recorded on a synthesizer with one oscillator tuned to the root note and a second oscillator tuned 7 semitones higher. That way, when you play the root note, you’ll hear both the root and the fifth interval. This makes sense with Energy Warning, as the single-note version is much simpler to play on the keyboard:

00:00
  • Energy Warning Single Line 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Energy Warning was likely recorded on a monophonic synth, a synth that can only play one note at a time, and tuning a second oscillator to a fifth is a fun way to produce ‘chords’. It’s also possible that Pete Standing Alone and Telepath were also recorded on synthesizer fifths patches rather than being sequenced or played using strict fifths. Boards of Canada are also fond of using samplers, and sampling a fifths chord and sequencing it or triggering it from a keyboard will have the same effect. Another example of a fifths synth patch on Geodaddi is the droning synth in the opening track Ready Let’s Go, which is a fifths interval.

Oscar See Through Red Eye

Oscar See Through Red Eye uses the fifths synth patch idea and with an ambient pad sound, using long attack and release envelopes. This is a signature Boards of Canada sound, and you hear it throughout their albums. In Oscar See Through Red Eye, the chord sequence is a repeating six-bar phrase with the chords F5 | A5 | E5 | B5 | G5 | E5

In this example, the bassline is nice and simple, it follows the root note of the fifth chords creating a simple, predictable bassline. However in the next few examples, we’ll see how Boards of Canada like to superimpose fifth chords over different bass notes to create different harmonic colours and more intricate basslines.

00:00
  • Oscar See Through Red Eye 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is a semitone lower than transcribed, in the key of B major.

Superimposing // Come to Dust

Fifth chord progressions can be made more interesting by playing bass notes other than the root note underneath them. Come to Dust uses a simple fifths sequence but makes it more interesting by changing one of the bass notes. The top-line chord sequence is D5 | G5 | B♭5 | E5 and this is repeated throughout the song.

00:00
  • Come to Dust Chords 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is approx. 50 cents sharp.

If you were going to write a bassline under this sequence, your first instinct would be to use the root notes of D | G | B♭ | E. Instead, Boards of Canada use a C bass note for the second chord, which results in a much smoother, step-wise bassline of D → C → B♭ instead of jumping around with D → G → B♭. This makes the G5 chord an G5/C slash chord, which means ‘G5 over a C bass note’

00:00
  • Come to Dust Bass 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The second chord has a slightly different sound than the other three, and this is entirely because of the bassline. The G5/C chord features the notes C, G and D, and in the context of the C bass note, the G becomes the perfect 5th and the D becomes the major 2nd. This makes it a Csus2 chord, named for its ‘suspended’ sound. It’s also a stacked fifth chord, as it’s comprised of two fifth intervals, one on top of the other. We’ll see this chord a few more times throughout this article and in a future Part Two article as it’s another Boards of Canada favourite.

boards of canada chord theory

Split Your Infinities

Another way to make fifths patches more interesting is by using a polyphonic synthesizer fifths patch and playing two notes at a time, which will create four notes; with two of those stacked 7 semitones above the other two. This is an inspiring way to compose as it’s easy to stumble upon new chord sounds or progressions, even harmonically complex ones, without knowing any music theory. This technique can be heard on Split Your Infinities, which starts with an E5 ascending through a G5 to an A5 chord. The final A5 chord is joined by a C5 below it:

00:00
  • Stacked Chord 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The final chord has a noticably different sound than the single fifths chord; it sounds more like a regular chord. The bass note in this chord is C, so with the full range of notes being C, G, A and E, we’d call this chord C6, with the A note being the colourful sixth interval. While this kind of analysis is interesting to explain why a chord sounds so nice, it certainly wasn’t done when Split Your Infinities was being composed. Simply combine two notes, listen to the resulting chords, and decide which ones sound good together.

Below is the full progression with the bassline added. The second section adds C5 to F5 chords, both over a B♭ bass note. The F5/B chord is another example of the fourth in the bass, and could also be written as B♭sus2, which carries the same sound as the Csus2 chord we just saw in Come to Dust.

00:00
  • Split Your Infinities 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is approx. 20 cents flat and a semitone lower than transcribed, in the key of F♯ major.

Sundown

Sundown, from Tomorrow’s Harvest features another example of a polyphonic fifths patch. This is another free-time ambient composition similar to Telepath, likely played on a polyphonic synthesizer and then processed with huge amounts of reverb and delay. It’s not based on a looping sequence, instead the chord progression is always evolving and introducing new chords. Some of the chords are played as 3-note chords, which, when stacked with the 5th interval, become 6-note chords, creating all sorts of lush harmonies. Some examples are:

  • A and E become Asus2 (A, E & E, B)
  • C and A become C6 (C, G & E, A)
  • C and E become Cmaj7 (C, G & E, B)

I’ve only transcribed part of Sundown below, but I definitely recommend listening to the full song to hear some of the interesting chord colours and subtle key changes created by having everything automatically harmonized in fifths. For my full remake of Sundown, check out my Patreon page.

00:00
  • Sundown 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

The original recording is approx. 25 cents flat and a semitone lower than transcribed, in the key of F♯ major.

Palace Posy

We’ve mostly looked at ambient songs for far, but fifths patches can also be used as lead sounds, as heard in Palace Posy. This represents another side of Boards of Canada, with an off-beat bassline and some exotic-sounding chord changes. This is another example of a fifths patch likely recorded on monophonic synths, which are perfect for lead sounds.

00:00
  • Palace Posy 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

There’s some interesting interplay between the bass notes and the fifth chords; the first three chords have the fifth in the bass (E5/B, F5/C and C5/G) and the subsequent chords all have the root note played as the bass line. This gives us an additional colour choice when fitting a bassline around fifth chords. So far we’ve seen these bass note options:

  • The root note (e.g. C5).
  • The fourth in the bass has a sus2 chord sound (C5/F is the same as Fsus2).
  • The flat third in the bass has a sixth chord sound (C5/E♭ is the same as E♭6).
  • The fifth in the bass retains the same sound (such as C/G).
00:00
  • Bass Choices 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

More Intervals // Cold Earth

The songs I’ve examined so far have all included strict perfect fifth intervals in the chord parts, and were likely recorded using fifth patches – synth patches where one oscillator is tuned to a fifth. Such patches allow for easier manual playing, making them particularly inspiring for those who don’t know music theory. However, Boards of Canada don’t solely rely on this method. Take a look at this three-bar repeating chord sequence from Under The Coke Sign, which appears on 2006’s Trans Canada Highway:

00:00
  • Cold Earth 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

This chord sequence initially seems to use perfect fifths throughout, and has an ambiguous quality similar to the Pete Standing Alone example from the start of this article. Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll notice that the first chord is a fifth interval (+7 semitones) but the second chord is a fourth interval (+5 semitones). Fourth intervals are similar to fifths in that they have the same major/minor ambiguity. In fact, a fourth interval is simply an inverted fifth – a fifth up from A is E, and a fourth down from A is also E.

boards of canada chord theory

The second chord is an A5 chord, however the top notes are A above E, which is an inversion of the normal A5 interval (E above A). This allows for smoother voice leading between chords. Although the bass note ascends from F → A, the top chord melody note descends from C → A. The third chord is also played as an inverted fifth interval, B5. However, the sample choir adds an additional D note, which is why I’ve notated it as Bm.

00:00
  • A5 Inversion 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Under the Coke Sign

Under the Coke Sign also features a mix of fifth and fourth intervals. It’s a four-bar phrase that starts with fifths, although this time the bass note is the minor seventh, which we haven’t seen so far. This gives us the slash chords D5/C and E5/D. The third chord is an inverted F♯5/A, with the notes C♯ and F♯ being the ‘inverted fifth’ intervalm and the A in the bass being an example of the minor third in the bass, as we saw in Sundown. I’ve notated this chord as A6 as it also works as an A major 6 chord (A C♯ E F♯).

The final three chords are all inverted fifths intervals, with the bass note of each being the fourth interval, which creates the sus2 sound that we saw in Come to Dust. They could alternatively be written as G5/C | A5/D | E5/A.

00:00
  • Cold Earth 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Original recording is approx. 20 cents sharp.

Sick Times

Sick Times starts with the fifths concept, before branching out into fourths and then thirds intervals. The A5/C♯ chord in bar 3 is an example of a major third interval in the bass, which we haven’t seen so far, and results in more of a traditional triad inversion sound. The E5 chord in bar 4 is another inverted fifth interval which allows it to share the same top E melody note as the preceding chord for smooth voice leading.

After that, the chords are all thirds intervals. Although Boards of Canada seem to love playing with fifths, they also know when to break out of the idea. Like most things in music, it’s important not to be constrained by an idea; if adding thirds or traditional triads is right for the song, then follow that sound.

00:00
  • Sick Times 00:00
boards of canada chord theory

Original recording is approx. 40 cents flat.

Other Fifths Songs

Boards of Canada may be one of the bigger proponents of fifths intervals and fifths synth patches, but they’re certainly not the only band to pitch an oscillator up 7 semitones. Other songs that I’ve recreated that utilize fifths patches include Beach House’s Black Car, which features an arpeggiator pluck patch; Tame Impala’s Gossip, which uses a fifths factory patch from the Roland JV-1080; and Gigi Masin’s Tears of Clown, which was recorded on a custom Korg Poly-800 patch.  

More famous fifths synth sounds can be heard in Seal’s Violet (recorded on a Roland D-50) and Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (recorded by layering some Roland JX-8P patches). If you know of any other famous fifths patch songs, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Recap // MIDI Download

Of course, writing with fifths isn’t the only compositional technique that Boards of Canada employ; they also use suspended chordsmoving shapes, and chromaticism to shape their darker, more brooding tracks. I’ll cover these in a future Part Two article, so be sure to sign up for the newsletter down below so you don’t miss it. Below you can download all the MIDI clips from the examples in this article for further analysis.

Download MIDI Files

Download the MIDI files for the musical examples in this article above. Note that you might need to rename the ‘.mid’ files to ‘.midi’ files, depending on which DAW you use.

Support the Site

Become a Patreon supporter for $5 a month, which helps support the site and gives you access to thirteen bonus Boards of Canada transcriptions that aren’t featured in these articles.

Read Part Two

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part Two article, which goes further by looking at their use of moving shapes, suspended sounds and chromaticism.

Read Me Next

For more 90s electronic breakdowns, check out my How Aphex Twin Created Selected Ambient Works 85-92 article, which looks at the sound design and production of a seminal electronic album.

Header artwork by Makarxart 

Published on September 7, 2023

Comments on Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part One

1 thought on “Boards of Canada Chord Theory, Part One”

  1. This is a really tremendous article, Dan. Thank you.
    Hopefully we’ll get some BOC synth patches in the next one.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *